Inside the private world of Maggie Tabberer
She was the stunning, leggy brunette who became photographer Helmut Newton’s muse (then his lover) and captivated Australia as a TV star and fashion trailblazer. In an exclusive interview, Maggie Tabberer talks to Juliet Rieden about the men in her life, her cherished daughters, the grief of losing her son, and celebrations for her 80th.
Sun is streaming through the white plantation louvres and dancing across the chiselled cheekbones and oceanic eyes of one of Australia’s most famous and beautiful faces. The camera shutter chatters excitedly; a wry smile, a head tilt, a searching gaze and there it is, frame after frame, a perfect take. The icon in front of the lens is Maggie Tabberer and, yes, even in her 80th year, as our photo shoot attests, she’s still got it.
Earlier, in front of the bathroom mirror, Maggie executed the perfect head wrap – a magical manoeuvre culminating in what has become her trademark jauntily angled turban.
“I’ve got no hair to speak of these days, darling, so I have drawers full of these things,” she says, with a throaty laugh.
The style icon and former model is still as passionate about fashion as she is about looking her best, which currently is ameliorated by a fridge full of Lite n’ Easy weight-management meals. “I really am doing it,” she says, laughing. “I feel fat and I am round here,” Maggie tells me, running her hands around her middle. “It does still matter. Of course, it does. I want to reduce some. I don’t feel good.”
Maggie may have retired, but daughter Amanda says, “It’s embedded in her DNA to strive to look good. She’s got a will to make herself better, which a lot of people at 80 couldn’t care less about.”
Maggie has always fought what she calls “the battle of the bulge”. It was the reason she quit mainstream modelling. Yet without it, she would not have diversified into TV, become Fashion Editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly – a position she held for 15 years, working under seven different editors – and created her own label, Maggie T, cornering the market for women sized 12 to 24.
“I think we can be very proud of the way that she helped women in Australia,” her eldest daughter, Brooke, tells me over a cup of tea in her local café, just round the corner from her mum’s home. “She was pretty out there. They saw the first signs of that on Beauty and the Beast, when she said, ‘Women, be proud of yourselves, don’t put yourself down because you’re a big girl.’ She used to sign off her TV show, ‘And remember, girls, whatever you do, be good at it.’ She really meant that. It was her mantra.”
Slipping effortlessly into her former roles as model and stylist, Maggie is in her element and, watching her work, it’s easy to see how her eager passion, sense of fun and innate style caught the eye of the most famous and controversial fashion photographer working in Australia in the 1950s.
The demanding and notoriously difficult Berlin-born Helmut Newton was married to Aussie beauty June Brunell and working in Melbourne’s fashion district when he and Maggie first met. Helmut was different from other fashion photographers of the day. He relished working with bigger, taller models with attitude and his pictures oozed a gritty, urban elegance.
In Maggie, Helmut met his muse and together the pair created their own magic, turning Maggie’s suburban Adelaide world upside down and changing her life for ever.
Before Helmut, Maggie’s modelling was sedate and parochial. She was a very young mum of two and modelling was all about stretching her wings and reclaiming her independence from a controlling husband.
“I loved modelling,” says Maggie, “but I also enjoyed making my own money for really the first time in my life.”
She had married Charles Tabberer in 1953 when she was a gorgeously coltish 17 and he was 35. Charles wasn’t her first serious boyfriend – that was another 35-year-old and the relationship ended unceremoniously when
Maggie fell pregnant at just 15. “That’s not a good memory,” says Maggie, who confesses that as the youngest of five, she was a very rebellious teenager.
“He should have known better. Sam was short and Italian, and a builder. He had a huge flash car, and he used to rock up in that,” she recalls. Maggie had an abortion unbeknownst to her parents, leaning on her sister, Nancy, for support.
She visited a local woman – “a very normal-looking, neat lady in a black dress” she recalls in her biography – and tells me she can still remember every horrible moment of the procedure. Later that night, back at her childhood home in Adelaide, Maggie collapsed and her secret was uncovered. “My mother was wonderful. She was consoling, but afterwards, every sentence finished with, ‘And now I hope you’ve learned your lesson!’”
When Maggie met car dealer
Charles Tabberer, her parents Molly and Alfred Trigar must have worried that history might repeat itself. Yet the 18-year age difference between the couple didn’t bother Maggie. “I thought he was handsome. He spoke beautifully and was a whizz bang on the tennis court and golf course,” she explains. Charles took Maggie out and showed her off, and after just six months he proposed.
Looking back, Maggie thinks she might have had “some sort of father complex” in her choice of men. Certainly, she found boys of her own age to be “complete ratbags”, she chuckles. “They always wanted to get into your pants and get you to sit in the back seat of the car, and all that business, which I hated.” Charles, on the other hand, was “dashing and successful, and I felt secure with him – it didn’t stay that way, though.”
Maggie’s own father, Arthur, “liked a drink or two or five or 10,” she says. “It didn’t please Mummy, of course, and the worst thing was that it absolutely destroyed his health. He smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, no filter, and eventually he got cancer in the throat.”
She says her parents were relieved when she told them that Charles wanted to marry her. “I think they thought, ‘Thank God, she’s off our hands. Someone else can worry about her.’”
Aged 18, Maggie was pregnant with her first daughter, Brooke, and 14 months after that, Amanda was born. She adored her girls, but suddenly at the age of 21 Maggie was married with two babies. “The pregnancies were planned,” Maggie tells me. “I’ve always thought, in my heart of hearts, Charles thought, ‘I’m not going to let her slip away from me, so I’ll keep her barefoot and pregnant at home’… I was certainly that and, yes, it tied me down.
“I was so young, I got restless and, finally, after several people had said to me, ‘You should be in modelling’, I started to listen.”
Maggie joined a modelling school and, proving to be a natural, was quickly snapped up for fashion parades and advertising work for David Jones in Adelaide. Soon, she was working in Melbourne too, which is where she met Helmut Newton.
With Helmut, everything was different. Maggie was creating art and it ignited a creativity she never knew she had. “I was like a big sponge at that time. I watched him and I knew what he liked, I knew how he wanted me to stand. I don’t know if it was telepathy or some intuitive thing, but I would start to throw in my idea of what I should be doing and we developed a sort of communication. Also, I was game,” Maggie recalls.
“He had a thing about photographing you in all those little alleyways in Melbourne that I now realise looked
Maggie Tabberer, with daughter Amanda, welcomed us into her Sydney home (which is just as stylish as you’d expect).